In the 1800s, the town of Odessa blossomed into an international city. Its location on the Black Sea made it a gateway to the Russian Empire, the first stopping post for various merchants and traders.
And Jews. Oh, there were Jews, making up more than a third of the city's population. Jews, pushed out of Russia's major cities because of various antisemitic laws, thrived at the outpost. They were merchants, they were traders, they were businessmen. They were artists and writers. They were gangsters.
And writers and gangsters intertwined when Isaak Babel wrote his Odessa Tales in the 1920s. The stories told of Benya Krik, a mobster based on real-life Jewish gangster Mishka Yaponchik. Babel, in his lyrical yet brutal style, painted the reality of Odessa's Jewish underworld. The stories were not for the meek.
Sadly, neither was Babel's demise. He was imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Stalinist regime, his works blacklisted for decades. And Odessa's Jews? Those who survived the pogroms and the Nazi occupation left when the Soviet Union allowed Jews to emigrate. Today, those who remain are a pale shade of those who once were.
And so is Odessa.